Madame Butterfly Hits High Note
Written by Nan Lincoln
www.mdislander.com

BAR HARBOR It was worth the wait.

 

Shana Blake Hill as Madame Butterfly and Scott Scully as B.J. Pinkerton earned a standing ovation.
Photo by FRANCES FREMONT-SMITH

That was pretty much the consensus for those who sat in the audience at the Criterion Theatre the night of July 16 and waited patiently during the first act of Madame Butterfly for soprano Shana Blake Hill in the title role to finally appear in her scarlet kimono and trill her first spine-tingling notes. It was well worth the wait.

For two-and-a-half wonderful hours Ms. Hill and the rest of the fine cast of this year's Bar Harbor Opera Theater production kept the audience thrilled, enrapt and finally heartbroken as the tragedy played out amid familiar and favorite arias and duets. And, they were sung in manner that would have had audiences in any grand opera house in the world in awe.

Enough can't be said about Ms. Hill's performance. From the moment she appeared on stage as a girlish, giddy, teenage geisha, besotted by the handsome U.S. naval officer who has arranged to marry her, she won the battle for our hearts and minds. It was devastating to see her happiness, knowing that her sailor's heart wasn't completely on board; knowing that for him the union is just a happy diversion while he is stationed overseas until he returns to America to find a "real" wife.

Lyric tenor Scott Scully as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton was excellent in a difficult role. At first he appeared as a devil-may-care, whiskey-swilling cad, who ignores the advice of the American consul (soberly played by baritone Ryan Taylor) who cautions him to be careful of the young geisha's heart. Clearly, this guy was only interested in having a pretty bedmate for a few years. But then Mr. Scully successfully, in a very fast turnaround, managed to convince us that Lt. Pinkerton did have true feelings for the girl. This transformation is vital as, otherwise, the beautiful duet sung as their marriage is on the verge of being consummated would have appeared more like statutory rape than a love story.

Still, it's hard to forgive Lt. Pinkerton when, in Act II we find Butterfly five years later alone and destitute waiting for her "husband" to return after a three-year absence.

Although her maid and confident Suzuki beautifully sung in a rich mellow mezzo-soprano by Kyung Kim tries to tell Butterfly that it is unlikely she will ever see Lt. Pinkerton again, Butterfly refuses to hear it, and in the opera's most heart-rending, poignant moments she tells Suzuki exactly how the long-awaited reunion will occur. Ms. Hill sang and acted this aria so evocatively we could almost see the wisp of smoke rising from the funnels of the ship as it entered Nagasaki Harbor, hear the cannon blast announcing its arrival, and see his small figure start the ascent to the hilltop house they once shared and where Butterfly waits patiently and confidently for him to reach her door and start up their life together again.

This reverie ended in one of the loveliest notes ever heard in the Criterion Theatre sung softly but powerfully as Butterfly walked off stage. It lingered like a, well, like a butterfly, hovering in the air, long after she was gone.

But this opera is a tragedy, so of course Butterfly's vision is not at all how things turn out. Lt. Pinkerton, the creep, does return but only to claim the child he has just discovered Butterfly gave birth to after his departure. Heartbroken and feeling dishonored, Butterfly relinquishes the boy adorably and seriously played by Ian Carey, wearing Crocs. Then she falls on her sword.

Once again Ms. Hill demonstrated her considerable acting chops, creating a tense and horrifying moment as Butterfly commits her fatal cut, then hears, too late, Lt. Pinkerton calling her name.

It took the distressed audience a few moments before it could collectively gather its wits and offer up a well-deserved standing ovation.

Fenlon Lamb, who directed, also deserved a standing ovation for putting this whole thing together in about a week, with just enough costuming and staging to make it all feel like the real deal. And piano accompanist Cara Chowning would have been wonderful to hear even if the singers had failed to show up.

In smaller but important rolls, Tim Culver provided some comic relief as the unctuous marriage broker Goro, and Christopher Dickerson was properly glowering and menacing as Butterfly's angry uncle Bonze and as her rejected suitor, Prince Yamadori. A small ensemble of David Schildkret's Mount Desert Summer Choral handled the chorus numbers admirably. That group's concert, by the way, is coming up Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 7 and 8.

And finally, another standing ovation was earned by the MDI community for showing up some 500 strong for this fifth annual Opera Theatre performance. It seems the community has finally caught on that this really is a premier musical event. Unless one happens to live next door to The Met in New York City, it was a rare opportunity to hear some of the finest young operatic talents in the country. Perhaps the Bar Harbor Music Festival can bring us another opera next year, but make it a comedy, please, because after this one, we could use a laugh.

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